Late spring into early summer is a sleepy period on the NFL calendar. Not much is happening. Most players are at OTAs and minicamps are coming up, but those are teaching periods without heavy competition. The draft is over. Free-agent signings are coming in at a trickle. Any major player news seems disproportionately significant by contrast, and it’s tempting to let the imagination run wild in order to fill the void. Strange questions start to seem like they’re worth asking.
Like: Is Aaron Rodgers’s man bun a symbol of player empowerment?
Ready your “stay off the weed” GIFs if you must. Rodgers has been in the news a lot lately, mostly for reasons unrelated to football but that have been tied to his trade request nonetheless. If this annual lull in the NFL calendar has a saving grace, it is star players making trade demands. There’s inherent drama in a player of Rodgers’s caliber telling his team he doesn’t want to play for them anymore and, until something actually happens, the story can be rehashed ad nauseam. Every detail can be mined for significance that may not actually exist, but feels like it does when there’s not much else going on. It is the water, and we, the football-news-consuming public, will subsist on it like camels if we must.
So when Rodgers popped up on social media while on vacation in Hawaii rocking a topknot—a universal marker of being extremely chill—while the majority of his Packers teammates and coaches were at OTAs without him, it seemed like a statement. I don’t need you. I can’t be bothered. Not even to get a haircut. Have fun doing hill sprints; I’m hiking waterfalls and doing Taylor Swift karaoke with my famous fiancée and our friends.
It should be noted that Rodgers’s execution of these winking public appearances is fantastic. His trade request was reported on the first night of the draft; days later, he went to the Kentucky Derby, where he was photographed wearing a name tag that said “Turd Ferguson.” That’s a reference to Saturday Night Live’s “Celebrity Jeopardy!” sketch, and that reference both was funny and served as a reminder that Rodgers has potential career paths outside football—he was a guest host on Jeopardy! this spring and has said he’s interested in being Alex Trebek’s full-time replacement. I don’t need you. I can be on TV. In case you forgot, I’m engaged to Shailene Woodley. There should be chapters on Aaron Rodgers in communications textbooks.
Other players have followed a similar lead. Falcons receiver Julio Jones has also reportedly requested a trade. Jones caused a stir in May when he took a photo with a fan in Dallas while wearing a Cowboys sweatshirt. That photo was never likely to remain private and did not. It was ultimately what prompted Jones’s Undisputed interview last week, when he told Shannon Sharpe he was done playing for the Falcons and wanted to go somewhere he could win, while not entirely seeming like he knew he was on live television.
There was a time shortly after the Super Bowl when it seemed like Russell Wilson might go down this same path, but he only went so far as to tell reporters that he’s getting hit too much. Wilson never demanded a trade and hasn’t done any of the public needling that Rodgers and Jones have. Wilson isn’t at OTAs, but is reportedly working out in San Diego with coach Pete Carroll’s support. Carroll said last month on The Rich Eisen Show that any Wilson drama was “old news.” So Wilson doesn’t appear to be making any attempts at creatively engineering a trade. (The lack of drama is a mixed bag for the Seahawks, of course, given that the two most important factors to their success are Russell Wilson and total chaos.)
It’s obvious that these are fun and interesting spectacles. It’s less clear whether any of them actually increase the likelihood that these players will be granted their trade wishes. In most cases, the intrigue seems to far outweigh the impact. Wilson was reportedly interested in leaving the Seahawks at the end of last season, then did little to put public pressure on the team to act on that interest, and is currently unlikely to be traded. Rodgers reportedly told the Packers he doesn’t want to play for them anymore, has put significant public pressure on the team to trade him, and is currently unlikely to be traded. According to Matt Schneidman, a Packers beat reporter for The Athletic, Green Bay has no intention of trading Rodgers; the only scenario in which they might change their stance is if they believed he would hold out all season, which they apparently don’t.
It’s easy to see why teams tend to feel like they hold most of the cards when players under contract ask for trades. Take Green Bay as an example. Rodgers has already forfeited a $500,000 workout bonus by skipping the offseason program to date. If he skips minicamp, training camp, and the season, he’d forfeit $22 million in salary and be fined $93,000 for his minicamp absence and $50,000 for each day of training camp missed. Rodgers has interests outside of football, but he’s still a competitor who loves to play and, especially at 37, does not want to miss a season. In terms of hard power, these factors provide more meaningful leverage for the Packers than Rodgers’s ability to create a public frenzy that’s potentially embarrassing to the team. One reason good quarterbacks change teams relatively rarely is that teams often extend them early on in their contracts, ensuring these constraints stay in place.
Jones is more likely to get traded than Rodgers, but not necessarily because he was photographed in another team’s gear or because of a strange television interview. Atlanta currently does not have enough salary-cap room to sign its draft class, and moving Jones would solve that problem for new general manager Terry Fontenot. It’s possible that Jones’s public revelation that he’s unhappy with the Falcons diminishes the team’s leverage to hold out for a particularly good offer, but that shouldn’t be a major factor as long as there are multiple potential trade partners. According to ESPN’s Dianna Russini, the Seahawks, Rams, 49ers, and Titans have spoken with Atlanta about Jones. Whatever bidding war arises from those talks will set the market, not Jones’s comments.
There are recent examples of players who have made life difficult for their teams and then gotten their wish for a trade. Jalen Ramsey in 2019 comes to mind, though his circumstances were different. Jacksonville was 2-4 and looking for draft capital to begin a significant rebuild when they traded Ramsey for two first-round draft picks. The Rams signed Ramsey to a lucrative extension a year later, leaving both teams satisfied with the deal. In Jacksonville, Ramsey fought on the sideline with head coach Doug Marrone and missed practices but, for all the apparent drama, it made more sense for a contending team like the Rams to pay Ramsey top dollar and for the Jaguars to build for the future. For all the A blocks and column inches filled, examples of players getting trade demands fulfilled are relatively rare, and usually don’t cut directly against the grain of their team’s needs and goals. Rodgers has to like what Tom Brady has in Tampa, where a team has gone all in on a star, veteran quarterback, but Brady had to wait out his contract and hit free agency before he could leave the Patriots and make that happen.
So does that mean it’s all pointless? If the only goal Rodgers, Jones, or any other player seeking a trade has is to ensure that a move will happen, then maybe. Even if that’s the main objective, though, it probably isn’t the sole one. Since winning MVP in February, Rodgers has gotten engaged, guest-hosted Jeopardy!, gone to the Derby, vacationed in Hawaii, and been announced as one of the players in the charity golf event “The Match,” along with Brady, Phil Mickelson, and Bryson DeChambeau, while the Packers have been served with an unending string of questions about their star quarterback’s dissatisfaction.
“I don’t know,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said earlier this week when asked whether Rodgers will report to minicamp next week. “We’ll see come Tuesday.”
The following day, a video of punter JK Scott throwing a football at OTAs circulated online, a ready-made punch line about what happens when a team upsets the reigning MVP.
Falcons coach Arthur Smith, too, is getting constant questions about Jones—he called it “part of the job” on Wednesday—and the Falcons were reportedly upset about Jones’s comments, even though they didn’t do much harm to their actual negotiating position.
All of this at least raises a question: If the teams have all the power, why are the players having all the fun?
The answer likely has something to do with the type of power we’re talking about. Teams have the hard power when they control players under contract. Star players, though, do have the kind of soft power that comes simply from being Aaron Rodgers or Julio Jones, or someone like them. They can make life a little unpleasant for the teams that aren’t doing as they wish. It may not be enough to force a trade, but that doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy offering the reminder. Rodgers’s frustrations with Green Bay’s front office seem to stem from the feeling that it hasn’t included him in major decisions, as some teams do for star players. General manager Brian Gutekunst did not call Rodgers before drafting quarterback Jordan Love in the first round of the 2020 draft, and the Packers haven’t mortgaged their future to make splashy “all in” free-agent signings like the Buccaneers did for Brady, or even teams like the Rams and Saints have done. If Rodgers doesn’t believe he’s being given the weight a team should give a star quarterback and wants to assert some control, his ability to create a news cycle at least serves as a reminder that he’s one of the major faces of the NFL.
Player empowerment is a growing trend in the NFL, but its tangible effect is still limited. Players have watched their peers in the NBA force trades, have say in personnel, and create superteams for years. The banana boat was a joke until it was real. NFL players envy that kind of power but, because of non-guaranteed contracts and the nature of the sport, they lack it for themselves and will continue to, barring a new collective bargaining agreement with significant changes that would be at least a decade away. These players are doing just fine (and have the Instagram content to prove it) but, as far as professional sports contracts go, it is a relatively tough hand. Rodgers’s man bun may not be a true symbol of player empowerment, but it might be a symbol of its limitations in the NFL. What’s a star player under contract to do? Go to Hawaii, put your hair up, and let the team sweat it out at home.